Fanning the Fire of Evangelism in Winnipeg

By Kristen Burke   •   November 22, 2006

The mid-October snow falling in Winnipeg only added to the city’s frigid reputation. Residents of the capital city of Manitoba call it “Winter-peg” and joke that the cold makes them tough and resilient.

Since the early 1880s, Manitobans have been known as pioneers and people willing to take chances. Many of the first Manitobans were natives of Europe or Asia; others were from eastern Canada. But regardless of their birthplace, most settlers wanted a new life working on the Canadian Pacific Railway or a piece of the 25 million acres the government offered to settlers. By moving west to an unsettled prairie province, they took the risk that the railway would be completed and would connect them both to the cities in the east and Vancouver in the west. Winnipeggers hoped that the railway would make them the center hub of transportation and commerce for Canada. And like many Manitobans today, they weren’t afraid to work hard to achieve their dreams.

That risk-taking spirit can be felt today among those who serve Christ in Winnipeg and Central Canada. Despite the risk of controversy and rejection in a society known for tolerance, they wanted to invite all of Central Canada to hear about the power of Jesus Christ alone to free people from sin and restore lives. At the Central Canada Festival, they saw the rewards of taking that risk as crowds from up to 500 miles away filled the MTS Centre and spilled over into nearby Calvary Temple Church.

Firing Up the Church
It seemed to some of the Festival leaders that getting churches and Christians involved in the Festival would be an uphill battle.

At first, Winston Smith, the executive chairman, was concerned that Christians would come but would not make an effort to bring people from outside the walls of the church.

“I think within the churches we have to be careful not to be apathetic,” said Smith. “The need is that churches not become clubs. We must look outside.”

Tolerance of other views is a high priority in Canada, and while tolerance can be positive, it can also cause the Church to back away from its responsibility to confront social and spiritual problems. Although one might expect a city in a prairie province to be relatively peaceful, in recent years Winnipeg has ranked at or near the top in national crime statistics. And the city faces other social challenges, too.

“We respect people’s views, but it is important for us to get the message across to the churches that we need to get out into the community,” Smith said. “As far as community needs are concerned … there’s unrest between some of the cultures. There are kids in the streets. Some children go to school and face bullies because of their color, race or creed. This Festival will help if it fires up the desire of people to continue the evangelism of our community.”

God did fire up Christians in Winnipeg. Thousands prayed for their family and friends and invited them to the MTS Centre. The Festival reached out to diverse ethnic groups, as well as to youth in public schools.

Crossing Cultural Barriers
People come to Winnipeg from all over the world, mostly for education and career opportunities. But the people who have been in Winnipeg the longest–the native or Aboriginal people–have been excluded from many of these opportunities. Government initiatives through the years have created resentment in the Aboriginal community toward Anglo-Canadians.

“Winnipeg has the largest Aboriginal population in Canada,” said Larry Wilson, an Aboriginal pastor and director of the First Nations Alliance Church of Canada. “And it continues to grow. We have 70,000-80,000 Aboriginal people here, yet there are only a few local native fellowships that seek to reach my people for Christ.

“Aboriginal history is not a very positive history, at least in Canada,” Wilson continued. “Colonization and government initiatives such as residential schools have destroyed some of the core values of our people–our identity and family relationships. The pain of that has had an impact on generation after generation. Because many of the initiatives were tied to the church, there is still an attitude of resentment toward the church and Christianity.”

But Wilson is confident that the Aboriginal culture can complement the life of the church. Aboriginal people value relationship, he said, so once healthy relationships are established within the church, Aboriginal people not only enhance church culture but also grow spiritually and remain committed long term.

Cultural barriers were crossed as Christians from across the racial spectrum worked together on the Festival, Wilson said. He hopes that the Festival will be the start of new life for many Aboriginal people.

“It would be a joy to see Aboriginal people who committed their lives to Christ at the Franklin Graham Festival attend a church, be discipled and participate in developing strong, healthy native churches in our city,” Wilson said.

Extreme Love
Jon Billings slept only 10 hours the week before the Festival. He spent the week as a driver and set-up volunteer for Chaos on Wheels, an evangelistic BMX bike stunt team, which performed at 10 of the more than 30 school assemblies held in conjunction with the Central Canada Festival. Although the team couldn’t openly present the Gospel at many of the schools, they could invite students of all ages to the Saturday morning Kidzfest and Saturday evening youth event. Billings hoped the bike stunts would get the attention of young people so they would listen to the message about Christ.

He helped the team set up and tear down after they performed extreme bike stunts for Kidzfest and youth night. By the time youth night concluded, he was sweaty and out of breath.

“It was fantastic,” Billings said. “Three of the kids [from the assemblies] stopped me today and I found out that all three had come that morning with their parents, and all three accepted Christ, as did one of the parents. So that made the 90 hours absolutely worth it.”

The message of the stunt team and others who performed at assemblies bore fruit in hundreds of lives on Saturday–including a 12-year-old boy who was one of eight children in a family that wanted nothing to do with God or the Church. For three years a Christian family prayed for him and, to their surprise, the 12-year-old’s parents allowed him to attend Kidzfest Oct. 21.

Ventriloquist Lesha Campbell gave children an opportunity to come down to the front of the stage to receive Jesus and experience the “extreme love” that caused Him to lay down His life for the world. The boy walked up to a counselor on the floor and said, “The BMX bikers’ message really meant a lot to me,” and then asked Jesus into his life.

Valerie Nault’s prayers were answered at Kidzfest, too. Although she and her husband became Christians in 1992, none of their children or grandchildren had followed them–until Saturday morning, when their grandson Owen turned to his grandfather during the invitation and said, “I want to go down.” After confirming that he understood what he was doing, he walked onto the floor hand-in-hand with his grandfather.

“I’ve never done anything for God before,” the 8-year-old told a counselor. “This is my first time. But I know that my grandparents read the Bible and pray, and I’ve been to church with them.”

Nault’s eyes brimmed with tears as she explained how they had tried to set an example for their family. Now that faithfulness was yielding results.

Soul Surgery
“I’ve come this weekend to preach the simple Gospel message,” Franklin Graham told Festival leaders hours before the opening meeting of the Festival, “because it has the power to change lives. At every opportunity in this city, I’m going to give people a chance to hear that message and receive Christ.”

That evening, more than 13,000 people braved the cold wind and packed the MTS Centre in downtown Winnipeg. The arena was full before the meeting started, and Festival volunteers quickly prepared an overflow area for some 200 people in Calvary Temple, a nearby church.

The crowd listened to fellow Winnipeggers share how Jesus had changed their lives. Musicians such as Rebecca St. James, Canadian country singer Paul Brandt, Tommy Walker, the Tommy Coomes Band and others sang songs that prepared people to hear the Gospel.

Franklin Graham kept his promise and explained the Gospel simply. He said that he had been reading the Winnipeg newspaper. The headline on a story about the local Canadian Football League team, the Blue Bombers, read, “Blue Need Soul Surgery.”

“I thought about that,” Franklin said. “All of mankind needs soul surgery. The Bible says, ‘What should it profit a man if he should gain the whole world and lose his own soul? Or, what shall a man give in exchange for his own soul?’ (Cf. Matthew 16:26). And the Bible tells us, ‘No man can redeem the life of another or give to God a ransom for him. The ransom for a life is costly, no payment is ever enough, for the redemption of a soul is precious’ (Cf. Psalm 49:7-8).

“And the Bible says, ‘Hear that your soul may live.’ That’s what I want to give you an opportunity to do in a few minutes–to come and stand here, to confess your sins, to repent of your sins and to receive Christ by faith, so that your sins may be forgiven, so that your soul may live.”

You could own everything in the world, Franklin said–every hockey team, every Tim Horton’s donut and coffee shop, every gold mine in the world–but it wouldn’t approach the value of your eternal soul. Those who don’t pay attention to the condition of their souls will spend eternity in hell, a place of eternal torment, grieving, isolation and, worst of all, memories.

“[Hell] is a place of memory. You’ll be able to remember tonight! You’ll be able to remember the opportunity you had to come to Jesus. You’ll remember the night you said ‘No’ to Jesus Christ. … Hell’s a real place. And heaven is a real place. … Heaven is in the presence of God Himself, who made you and created you, who loves you, who saved you by sending His Son on a rescue mission out of heaven to this earth to redeem you.”

Franklin implored the MTS Centre crowd and those at Calvary Temple to make their way to the arena floor or the front of the church to make a public stand for Jesus Christ, to surrender their lives to God.

That evening and in the two following meetings, hundreds responded to the call to turn from their sin and toward Christ. The crowds grew larger each evening, until 1,700 people filled the overflow area at Calvary Temple for the final meeting. Many of these Festival-goers came forward with the friends and family members who had been praying for them for years.

On Sunday night, 17-year-old Terence Martel was one of hundreds of people on the arena floor. It was a startling contrast to two years ago, when social anxiety and drug use made being in a crowd sheer torture. His mother was a Christian, but she didn’t know how to help him. Eventually Martel admitted suicidal thoughts to a psychologist and was admitted to a hospital. The first night there, depressed and bored, he read a Christian book. It looked silly to him, but as he read, it addressed each of his problems. A page at the end explained how to receive Christ. Martel prayed and Jesus freed him from his fear. After he was discharged from the hospital, he was able to make friends and even joined the youth band at church.

When he heard about the Festival, Martel was eager to invite his father, with whom he’d had little contact over the years.

“My dad has opened up and told me that he was proud of me and that he agrees with what I believe,” Martel said, days before the Festival. “I think he wants to have a relationship with God. He just doesn’t know how to take those steps. I’m praying that God is going to touch him.”

At the Festival on Sunday night, God did touch Martel’s father’s heart. The two walked to the arena floor where his father joined hundreds of other Winnipeggers who found new life in a hockey arena. The fire that Christians had prayed for was burning brightly.

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